On virtue-signalling, power and shame

4 minute read


I recently read on Twitter a thread made by a scientist. In it they spoke about they way in which they refer to people of different heritages in papers and their desire to make these references more accurate. But, they didn’t want to be seen as ‘virtue signaling’.

I have some thoughts…

For the unfamiliar, virtue signalling is a term that has gained popularity since 2015 when a popular article was written on the subject, though it’s a term that has been around for around 10 years before that. It has been defined as: ‘indicating virtue without associated risk or action’. Or in the words of another journalist ‘you’re only saying that to make yourself look good’.

In the world of activism it’s true that this is a problem, especially in the social media generation where retweets and likes don’t always covert to the donations or volunteer hours that are sorely needed. Commitment to feminist or anti-racist ideals online does not necessarily translate to real action in personal and work spaces. We need activism to bring about change, but the ones who are doing the acting tend to be those who are already oppressed by the systems they are fighting to change. Activism relies on those who benefit from the system working to change it from a position of influence - not just tweeting about it.

So what’s the problem with calling out performative ‘action’ when we see it?

I have two reasons - the first is about change and how it happens, and the second is about what it looks like to use power to affect change.

The cycle of change:

(Most) People don’t wake up in the morning after a life of homophobia and decide to go to Pride. Change follows fairly predictable cycles, from thinking about it, talking about doing it, testing it out and then acting on it. If you wanted to start going to the gym you might first think to youself ‘I need to buy a gym membership’. You might tell friends and family about your intention to get fit. Then you might bite the bullet and actually buy the thing. It might take you even longer to actually step through the door.

People talking about issues online but not necessarily acting on them isn’t always bad. It’s often a toe in the water of being a more vocal advocate for others. Maybe it will progress from ‘likes’ to something a bit more exposing like re-tweets to eventually sharing your own views in a post. The issue we have at the moment is when this doesn’t then make the next step towards acting in the offline world.

Shame and Virtue Signalling

‘Virtue signalling’ has become a great insult for those who want to maintain the status quo. It’s a way of saying ‘you’re irrelevant’, ‘you’re not a good person’. For those who have been considering making a stand on an issue, fear of being accused of virtue signally might be used as an excuse not to act, even when taking the action would be the exact opposite.

A good example of this is sharing pronouns. Sharing your prounouns in an email signature as a cis/het person is virtually risk-free, and quite readily dismissable as ‘virute signalling’. However, doing so contributes to an evironment where colleagues who are trans and non-binary might feel more confident to be themselves at work. The accusation that doing so is ‘too PC’ is a push against change, a push against the acceptability of sharing pronouns by those who most likely don’t want to support trans rights.

I would be willing to argue that the majority of the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are those who do not support the agendas being shared. The actusation may make the recipient feel shamed, out of touch and unwilling to further share their views for the fear and shame of being judged further. What an easy way to supress activism.

It leaves us in a position where people who do have power, and do have the capacity to create change are using the risk of being accused of virtue-signaling as an excuse not to do so. If anything, feeling that there is risk associated with the action you are thinking of performing a sign that it isn’t virtue signally.

Putting yourself at ‘risk’ of people disagreeing, of people accusing you of virtue-signally, is maybe exactly what activism requires.

Food for thought.